Srinagar: Omar Abdullah, the youngest chief minister in the country, is up against the gravest challenge in his 18-month tenure at the helm. Demonstrations by sections of the populace and clashes with security forces have led to the death of 15 civilians. Critics have targeted Abdullah for failing to contain the month-long strife, with some even suggesting that he may not be up to the job. The 40-year-old chief minister, grandson of Sheikh Abdullah, the first chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), is, however, confident of overcoming the present challenges and in pushing for the economic uplift of the state. In an interview with Mint, Abdullah ruled out a leadership change in the government, and spoke about the challenges facing his regime and the optimism flowing from the decision of Pakistan and India to resume bilateral dialogue. Edited excerpts:
Is the worst behind us?
Looking at the current situation, I would like to believe it is. But knowing the history of Jammu and Kashmir and how things turn here at a moment’s notice, I don’t think anybody has a crystal ball or will be able to predict.
But we are making sure that the worst is behind us. And obviously the rest is in the hands of the Almighty.
How do you assess your handling of the current situation?
I’m not currently getting into the whole scope of assessing what happened, why it happened and what could have been the possible steps. As of now, almost everybody seems to have an opinion one way or the other of what could have been done and what should have been done. My immediate priority was to bring (the) situation under control and start helping the process of normalization, which is what we are currently doing. Subsequently, whatever introspection is needed at the level of the government...that we will do.
Things were looking good a few months ago. How did the situation change so dramatically?
The situation is still looking good. We had two bad weeks with sporadic trouble localized in certain areas and that’s all we had. And why this happened—I think it is important to understand that we had four separate incidents resulting from four almost different sets of circumstances.
Way forward: Omar Abdullah says the current situation requires political handling between India and Pakistan, and between Delhi and the state. Nitin Kanotra/HT
But we had similar results with young boys losing their lives in altercations with security forces. And really in terms of public mood turning angry, the turning point obviously was last Tuesday when a 25-year-old woman was accidentally killed because she was hanging out of her window watching riots in the street below and when (security forces) fired in the air, she took a shot by mistake and that obviously has turned things drastically. But otherwise, Sopore was a result of (a) militant encounter, Srinagar was a result of a boy losing his life after being hit by a tear gas shell... Anantnag I am not sure, I have my suspicion about what caused Anantnag, but I don’t think this is the time to get into that; and the most recent incident in Srinagar started with a boy drowning after being chased away by the security forces.
And really the flash point came when the young woman lost her life. So it has been a series of incidents rather than one incident that has stretched on and on.
What is the economic impact of the strikes and the rioting?
We have not assessed it as yet, but some figures that I have seen and some preliminary discussions we have had have pegged it at around Rs6,000 crore. It could be more, it could be less, but it’s important to see that we have loss of life also.
The economic loss is the one we can, over time, make up, but the second more tragic loss is of children’s education. Schools, colleges and universities have been closed and the students paid the price.
What is the real solution or the practical way forward?
There are two things. Either you are looking at it purely as a law and order situation, which I think would be simplistic, or we look at it as part of the overall problem of Jammu and Kashmir, which I think is more realistic. Nowhere during the protest did we see slogans shouting at my government or me as an individual. I think you should see what happened in a wider context, which is the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s been on fire for the last two decades or so. That requires political handling between India and Pakistan and between Delhi and the state. I am really trying to push things in that direction.
What does your report card look like in terms of development?
In most key sectors, lot of development has taken place. In 15 months, we have done more work under the Prime Minister Gram Sadak Yojana than we did in eight years prior to my government coming into power.
In terms of health infrastructure, we created more than 5,000 groups of doctors and paramedical staff. In education, our improvement in terms of children attending the schools, literacy, female literacy...is showing a positive trend due to better implementation of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. On the power front, in the very first time in the state’s history, we have a tariff-based power bidding of a project which has been awarded to an Indian company.
The biggest problem we face is that of unemployment and the problem of unemployment gets compounded in the (Kashmir) valley because there is no private sector worth mentioning. While in Jammu you have reasonably healthy MSMEs (micro, small, medium enterprises), you don’t have that in the Valley.
The only avenue for employment is in the government. Now, on account of various restrictions and the need to be fiscally conservative, there are limitations in the number of government jobs you can create. But unless I create jobs in the government, I will not begin to address the aspirations of the youth.
While I said there is a political aspect that needs to handled, in the meantime, there is also need to create economic goodwill and that can only be done if young people see a meaningful future ahead of them.
Are you doing something to bring in private companies?
In the Valley, to be honest with you, I am not very hopeful for a simple reason that if you have two weeks of hartal (shutdowns) during which no productivity is possible, who will want to invest? This is something which not only the government, but society needs to look at as well; if you want to have employment, you will have to create the atmosphere.
What has been the experience in opening the trade routes between Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir?
It was a good beginning; as always, a good beginning is only half done.
Trade at this time is on selected items and it is largely barter trade. They send some products and in turn we send some products. There is no cash trade and currently there is no formal communication between traders on this side and traders on the other side. So in the absence of communication and absence of banking relations, trade cannot flourish.
It began well as barter trade and it really (will) have to grow beyond barter trade to proper organized border trade, which has not happened. That’s what we (are) hopefully going to accomplish now that India and Pakistan have started a formal dialogue.
Do you have any specific plans to take it forward?
We are talking to the government of India. Obviously, external commerce is not a subject that the state government can independently take decisions on.
There is an international dimension to it and we are taking it (up) with the government of India, with the hope that together with the government of Pakistan we can do something.
Is the Union government supportive of your efforts?
Absolutely, no complaints.
Is it not contradictory, that even while you are having the Amarnath ‘yatra’ proceed peacefully, Srinagar is burning? Does it not mean that it’s simply a law and order problem?
I am seeing the law and order situation as part of a larger problem. The fact that the Amarnath yatra is going ahead peacefully is on account of two things—the meticulous preparations that are done at various levels in order to facilitate the yatra and also (because) the overwhelming majority of the people of the Valley are committed to what is traditionally known as Kashmiriyat—tolerance that is linked to Sufi Islamic culture.
Journalist M.J. Akbar (in ‘The Times of India’ dated 5 July) has argued that your father would have done better as chief minister.
With all respect to M.J. Akbar, his job is to write. Often, he writes from a disconnected position. I can understand him writing this after he has camped in the state for a month, travelled around, seen what is happening. M.J. Akbar has (a) platform from which he can air his views and I don’t agree with them most of the time.
Would you contemplate anything on these terms?
Certainly not. Why should I? He (Akbar) is not even a voter in this state.
Do you have any reservations about the kind of support you get from your party?
I think my party needs to strengthen grass-root contacts and the ability to reach out to people. I have absolutely no complaints about the support I get from the party.
Do you ask your father for advice?
Family are the only people who give you objective advice. Almost everybody else’s is subjective. My father has been the chief minister for a long period of time, he knows the pressures of this job. He has been chief minister during worse times and clearly his advice is invaluable.
Your attempts to bring in normalcy were not supported by the main opposition party in the state despite a request from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
An opposition party has two options—they can be the opposition as a constructive party or as a destructive party. I regret that at this time, my principal opposition party has chosen to play the role of a destructive opposition party.